WASHINGTON — Chinese President Hu Jintao denied his country is a military threat despite its arms buildup and pressed the United States on Thursday for closer cooperation between the global powers.
He urged the United States to treat China “with respect and as equals” after encountering a fresh barrage of criticism from lawmakers over human rights.
In a luncheon speech to American business executives, Hu also urged the United States to continue to recognize China’s sovereignty over Taiwan and Tibet.
“China-U.S. relations will enjoy smooth and steady growth when the two countries handle well issues involving each other’s major interests. Otherwise, our relations will suffer constant trouble or even tension,” Hu said as he wrapped up his state visit to Washington.
Hu’s speech followed back-to-back closed-door meetings on Capitol Hill with senior members of the House and Senate that included Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada.
Participants said he got an earful of complaints from some of his strongest congressional critics, especially over China’s business and trade practices and human rights conduct.
The Senate gathering began with a ceremonial handshake between the leader of 1.3 billion Chinese and Reid, Senate majority leader from Searchlight, before a large pack of eager photographers.
Reid said in a statement afterward that they shared “a productive meeting. The relationship between our countries is important and we share deep economic ties.”
“Although we have our differences, we look forward to strengthening our relationship in a way that allows us to address global economic and security issues,” he said.
While it provided an awkward backdrop for the occasion, Senate staff said Reid’s off-the-cuff comment in a Las Vegas television interview calling Hu a “dictator” did not come up during the meeting.
But it did beforehand, briefly. As Reid and Hu were posing for the cameras, CNN reporter Dana Bash called out to the Nevadan, “Senator Reid, what do you expect to accomplish from the man you called a ‘dictator?’ “
Neither Reid nor Hu acknowledged the question, and the photo session was brought to an end.
Several issues of parochial interest also found a way into the discussion. Reid said he spoke about the importance of increasing Chinese investment and tourism “in Nevada and across America.”
“We discussed how we have found common ground in Nevada on our shared interest in renewable energy projects,” Reid said.
Aides said the Nevadan spoke specifically of the wind turbine facility being built in Henderson by China-based A-Power, and encouraged Hu to keep the investments coming.
The Washington Post reported that before the formal meeting, Reid “pulled Hu aside for a few minutes. The brief exchange was out of earshot of reporters, but the two could be seen smiling as two interpreters relayed their remarks to each other.”
Reid’s office had no comment as to what was being discussed.
Following the business luncheon, the Chinese leader headed to Chicago where he dined Thursday evening with retiring Mayor Richard Daley, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and business leaders. Today , he visits a Chinese center at a high school and a Chinese auto parts producer.
President Barack Obama had expressed human rights concerns a day earlier at the White House, and Hu heard more of the same from members of Congress.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said House members “raised our strong, ongoing concerns with reports of human rights violations in China, including the denial of religious freedom and the use of coercive abortion” as a result of China’s one-child policy.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said she gave Hu a copy of a letter she sent to Obama highlighting “grave concerns” over human rights, currency manipulation and aggressive military gestures.
“Out of all the issues I raised, the only one which received a response from Mr. Hu was my statement urging the end of China’s forced abortion policy. I was astonished when he insisted that such a policy does not exist,” she said.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass, said the past year has been a challenging one in U.S.-China relations.
“Despite the shared gains achieved working together on global problems, many in Congress today believe the United States and China are on a collision course. It’s critical that leaders in both countries don’t allow mutual suspicions to degenerate into fear-mongering and demagoguery,” Kerry said.
Hu received a generally warmer reception at the luncheon session hosted jointly by the U.S.-China Business Council, which is made up of corporate officials with business ties to China, and the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, a foreign-relations policy group.
“We will remain committed to the path of peaceful development,” Hu told the luncheon.
Hu said China intended to “develop a socialist democracy and build a socialist country under the rule of law.”
In particular, Hu called for closer U.S.-Chinese cooperation in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Rim.
“We should stay committed to promoting peace, stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region, engage in open and inclusive regional cooperation, and turn the Asia-Pacific into an important region where China and the United States work closely with each other on the basis of mutual respect,” Hu said.
As to his warning on Taiwan and Tibet, Hu said such matters “concern Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity. They touch upon the national sentiments of 1.3 billion Chinese.”
It was a reference to China’s claim to the currently self-governing island of Taiwan, which split from the mainland amid civil war in 1949, and to Tibet, which is already under China’s control.
The U.S. and China must “treat each other with respect and as equals and handle major sensitive issues in a proper manner,” Hu said.
Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault contributed to this report. Contact him at stetreault@ stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760.